Meryle Evans - December 2013
Food Arts presents the December 2013 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Nahum (Nach) Waxman, founder of Kitchen Arts & Letters, the esteemed Manhattan emporium of books about food and drink that has been an indispensable destination for culinary professionals and gastronomes over the past 30 years.
Waxman, a Cornell University graduate with roots in rural New Jersey, pursued graduate studies in anthropology at the University of Chicago and Harvard before landing in New York City, where a Cornell job adviser, scanning his erudite résumé, declared, “You are what we call unskilled labor: advertising or publishing.” Choosing the latter, Waxman embarked on a distinguished career as an editor in academic and trade books, including 12 years at Harper & Row, acquiring many culinary titles before deciding “to pilot my own boat” by opening his bookstore in 1983.
His vision was, and remains, a shop that “is a repository of knowledge, of conversation, about everything that relates to the world of food and drink and how it all fits into our lives.” A passionate proselytizer for expanding cultural horizons, Waxman explains, “My personal mission is to deliver a message, especially to people who are deeply, seriously engaged in that world, who are busy doing everything that needs to be done to feed others—bakers, caterers, chefs, scholars, people who grow, manufacture, package, write—so they are thinking along new paths not only about how they made the food but where the food comes from. I want to have them think about agriculture, food policy, sustainability, and science, whether or not they are molecular gastronomers.” The 11,000 current titles that line packed floor-to-ceiling shelves in the store, and 3,000 out of print books stored in the basement, reflect those wide interests, ranging from all-time best seller Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking to an obscure book on Mayan ethnobotany that sat on a shelf for a decade waiting for the right customer.
The shop has become a mecca for luminaries and line cooks alike, who come to find inspiration rather than recipes in myriad books by their confreres, and to seek advice from the sage, congenial proprietor, who never lacks for an opinion. Blue Hill’s Dan Barber, one of a stream of prominent chefs who frequent the shop, remarks, “Though Nach has been referred to as the most knowledgeable culinary historian in the country [and rightly so], he reminds me, with that white beard and those tightly fastened suspenders, of a kind of old-school neighborhood grocer. Skilled in self-effacement and immune to glamour, he knows the freshest cookbooks on the shelf, freely dispensing wisdoms from his perch behind the counter.”
Waxman relishes the give-and-take conversation with customers who drop in, citing a recent day when he counted visitors from nine countries. But with the Internet making inroads on sales, the “neighborhood grocer” is thinking ahead, adapting to online ordering, providing content for a revamped website, and co-sponsoring a series of talks and tastings with the neighboring 92nd Street Y. He recently joined the ranks of food writer, co-authoring a book of quotes, The Chef Says… (Princeton Architectural Press) with longtime Kitchen Arts & Letters manager Matt Sartwell, due out next year. With a full plate, and other projects in the works, Waxman likes to point out, “We don’t kid around here.”